Published February 28, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS – Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah knew nothing about the NFL when he was growing up. Now, he could be a first-round pick in April's draft.
Ansah played soccer in Ghana as a kid, came to America to play basketball at Brigham Young and, after getting cut twice, finally took the advice of his track coach and tried out for football. The first time he put on football pads, as a sophomore in 2010, he looked like the Michelin man with things in all the wrong places. Until last fall, he had never started a game.
These days, NFL scouts are drooling over his potential.
"I try to stay up late and watch NFL Network. I see some things," Ansah said. "This is going to be my life, so I just try to suck it all in."
Ansah has been a sponge in this new world order of pro football, where anyone on Earth seemingly can apply for a job. Some men who made it to this year's 333-player combine were born or reared in Australia, England, Estonia, Germany, Jamaica, Japan, Liberia and Tonga.
Sure, the NFL has a history with players from the Pacific Rim and Africa. Some fans will remember Christian Okoye, nicknamed the Nigerian Nightmare, or Jack Thompson, known as the Throwin' Samoan.
Maybe this should have been expected given the league's conscientious effort to expand its global reach, though the NFL still lags behind Major League Baseball, the MLS, the NBA and the NHL. NFL officials have been scheduling regular-season games annually in London since 2007 and will play two regular-season games there in 2013. Buffalo has played five times in Toronto and has signed an agreement to play at least one game per season there for the next five years. The NFL also has staged preseason games in Mexico City and Tokyo in the past.
Twice, league officials tried to create a European developmental league, a venture that ended in 2007.
But now the results are rolling in.
Ansah played well at the Senior Bowl in January and only cemented his top 15 status by measuring in at 6-foot-5, 271 pounds and finishing the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds. Some have questioned his practice habits, but the one guy who has worked up close and personal with him, Lions coach Jim Schwartz, disagrees. Schwartz coached Ansah during Senior Bowl week.
"I think the most important thing in football and scouting is how they play," Schwartz said. "He played well in the game and just like this — it's important what you run a 40, it's important how many times you can bench 225 (pounds), but the thing that's most important and what you can't lose sight of is what the game day looks like. And he's done a good job and has put together some good game tape."
Ansah might be the first player from this year's foreign contingent to hear his name called.
It's a virtual certainty he won't be the last.
Estonia's Margus Hunt has been turning heads, too, since giving up on becoming an Olympic discus thrower and shot putter to pursue a career in football. He went to SMU for one reason: training with the Mustangs' track coach. But with the program no longer in existence, former NFL coach June Jones allowed him to walk onto his football team, much to the dismay of his fans back home who once referred to football as a "stupid sport."
After a solid showing at the scouting combine, Hunt's stock is rising, too. Scouts see the 6-8, 277-pound defensive lineman as a pass rusher.
"I had a really challenging situation in Estonia where I couldn't train because I was ranked No. 4 or No. 5 in the country (in throwing) and they only train the top two or three, so I came here," he said.
What other foreigners could get picked?
Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, a native of Tonga, was projected to be a high first-round pick until doctors at the combine discovered a heart condition. Florida State defensive lineman Bjoern Werner, a German native who started playing football after coming to the United States as a high school exchange student; Connecticut linebacker Sio Moore, who was born in Liberia and grew up in America; and Alabama defensive tackle Jesse Williams, who grew up playing rugby in Australia.
Each played well enough in college to earn an invite to the combine.
"I think aggressiveness plays a pretty big part in playing the defensive line and especially hitting without pads and then here using pads," Williams said. "I wouldn't say it shaped my game, but it helped me being aggressive. I love this sport. I like being powerful and being able to control my body and use the techniques I have to be successful."
And they're becoming ambassadors for the sport, too. Ansah, Hunt and Moore all acknowledge they've spent hours teaching the game to family members and friends. They say once they understand the sport, they love it.
It's not just foreigners making inroads overseas, either.
Kentucky offensive lineman Larry Warford made a service trip to Ethiopia in May, USC quarterback Matt Barkley has done volunteer work in Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa, and BYU offensive lineman Braden Brown spent part of his free time in Ecuador. All have been able to explain or teach the game during their travels.
Perhaps that explains why there are now 64 nations with national federations of sport dedicated solely to American football, up from 40 in 2007.
"You will see a lot of development from France, Germany and Australia and they have the raw materials, too. If the NFL and the coaches would look outside players going to college, there are players in France and Austria that I think are ready to play in the FL," said Tommy Wiking, president of the International Federation of American Football. "I would expect that you will see the same development that you have seen in ice hockey, basketball and baseball, and you will see a lot more international players in football."
Sure, players like Ansah and Hunt have plenty to learn about American football. As a group, though, they could be the start of an international wave that might be making major contributions next season.
"It was frustrating in the beginning," Ansah said. "I wasn't treated like a starter. I wasn't treated like Ziggy hasn't played football at all. It was like . they were pushing me like I was playing football for 25 years. It was crazy. But it's been easier now.
"I don't know if I should say it's hard to believe. It's really humbling. I'm really privileged to be out here and I'm really grateful for the opportunity I have."